Talking with a toddler: Context should partner with ABCs

As a mom teaches her toddler to talk, she realizes the context around the words might be more important than basic vocabulary.

Lane Brown

I heard it from the back seat after I responded to a story my husband told me. 

“So. Dumb.”

It was said deliberately, forced from his lips as he practiced the words. 

“So. Dumb.”

It was my 2-year-old son repeating my words from the back seat.

I corrected my word choice, “What I meant to say was silly. That is so silly!”

Then he did it again, repeating the next phrase I said. Throughout the car ride we had a little parrot strapped into a five-point harness behind us, picking phrases to share, singing the lyrics of songs on the radio. 

My son has jabbered for some time, and he has put together sentences, sans prepositions, to create short conversations with us. Whether we understand him clearly or not is debatable. After spending most days with the kid, I feel like I follow his conversations and logic a lot better than most conversations with adults. 

However, he has now made it clear that he hears and understands how to repeat most things we discuss. Why wouldn’t he? We train him in phrases we want to hear, coaching him to repeat our words. Now he realizes that he doesn’t have to wait for us to give him the go ahead to say something.

I have been warned about this time of life, I have been regaled with stories of parents letting something fly they wish would have stayed grounded. I’ve watched as parents spell out impossibly complex phrases in hopes of staying over junior’s head, or shove a fist into their mouths to avoid saying something they might regret after they run a shin into a play table. 

We have even started spelling particular phrases in our house, but my husband tends not to be the greatest speller, so we have a unique team building opportunity moving forward.

He’s tried spelling out phrases for me before, then I cock my head and wrinkle my brows. “Huh?” He stops to check the spelling. Meanwhile, anyone who was overhearing the conversation has lost interest and toddled off to the other room to try to turn on the television to watch c-h-o-o c-h-o-o videos as we stumble through the finer points of audible spelling.

Perhaps saying little to nothing at all may work better. It worked yesterday in a particularly tricky situation. Driving straight through a green light, an oncoming pickup truck with a trailer decided it was their time to turn left in front of me, even though I had the right of way and was heading straight toward their front bumper. I honked, at which point the driver pulled forward to block my path, rolled down the passenger window, and with a red faced yelled a few choice words at me. 

Shortly after the exchange, as I pulled through the intersection, I imagined a scenario where I was alone in the car and happily drove ahead to ram his front passenger door with my aging, but sturdy vehicle, a la Kathy Bates in “Fried Green Tomatoes.” 

It was a satisfying fantasy, but unrealistic for multiple reasons, including the safety of an eager set of eyes and ears sitting in the back seat. Instead, I calmly kept driving, kept my voice soft and low and mentioned that the other driver got his right of way because he was a jerk. When it comes to calling it like I see it, I am OK with my child learning that skill.

However, what I also want him to learn is that there were probably a myriad of reasons the guy in the truck thought he was in the right. Maybe he felt justified after a particularly bad day, maybe he felt I paused too long after the light turned green, maybe he genuinely forgot drivers’ ed training and considered that as the larger vehicle he had the right of way. I hope we are allowed to have those moments; I know I have had my share. His response to my honk was flat out wrong, but I could have come across a man who had been pushed to his limits.

Since I could never know the reasons behind his response, I couldn’t realistically label him as a jerk for a single action. Similar to my comment about something being “So dumb” days before. What might have seemed so silly in the moment, might not be after all.

More than a lesson in watching what we say, I realize this is turning into a lesson in watching what we think, and realizing that even our off-handed comments are snatched up quickly by aspiring verbalists. Adding context to a situation, that is a skill I am still attempting to master today. It makes me think how often I will immediately sympathize with a friend griping about a husband, or a mother-in-law, or a coworker without the full breadth of understanding their circumstances.

Calling out inappropriate actions is fair game, and we should teach our kids to know when something is wrong, but when it comes to the generalized labels we paste on something, we have to know what we are talking about. 

Often we understand the full picture about as well as my husband and I have understood our son’s early ramblings.

I paused in the front seat after I commented on the other driver, waiting to hear it repeated from the back seat. That’s a word my son could easily repeat. Thankfully, he was silent.

Perhaps he is learning a little more than we give him credit for. And that deserves a c-h-o-o c-h-o-o video.

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